Are You One of the Others? Ask Ben Franklin


Who are "the others"? Since we're not talking about a remake of the 2000s' TV show, "Lost," the others refer to those we treat as undesirable because they are not like us.

No one in the U.S. these days is a stranger to the harsh treatment of one another, mostly due to the safe distance from which social media enables us to throw insults. But as we come up with more and more brutal ways to disparage one another, the real "others" we're talking about are more than the adversarial warriors online, they are those who need our empathy most — Americans living without the means to help themselves.

Polling reveals that middle-class folks often look down on the poor "others," describing them as “unpleasant,” “unmotivated,” "unfriendly," "incompetent," and “dirty.” But how would these survey-takers even know? The data reveal that most Americans rarely have regular interactions with people who would be classified as the worst-off among us.

Happiness economist Arthur Brooks and University of California-Berkeley professor John A. Powell explain how the resentment builds into otherism.

One might surmise this separation is the result of the widespread negative attitudes about people in poverty. But there is good reason to believe the causality also runs in the other direction. Psychologists have long studied a phenomenon called the “Ben Franklin effect,” named for the Founding Father’s observation that our appraisals of other people can actually follow our behavior towards them, rather than just the other way around. Specifically, Franklin noted, we tend to like people more after we have granted them a favor.

A canonical psychology experiment from 1971 lent weight to Franklin’s hypothesis—and its unpleasant flip side. Researchers at the University of North Carolina divided subjects into “learners” and “teachers” and asked the latter to teach the former a simple task. When the learners made mistakes, the teachers were randomly assigned either to reassure and encourage the learners or to insult and criticize them. Later, the teachers were questioned about the likability of their learners. Rather than sympathizing with the people the experiment had randomly forced them to victimize, the teachers rated the learners they’d insulted more negatively than the people they had praised and encouraged. Even though the teachers had not chosen the structure that surrounded them, it nevertheless adulterated their empathy and reduced their fellow-feeling for people they had no reason to dislike.

In other words, our own self-loathing creates disdain. And it gets worse when we "demo down," or begin to look at people through otherist demographic lenses like race, gender, ethnicity, and religion.

Forming groups among ourselves may have served a purpose in evolutionary biology, but that's not the case these days.

Othering uses bonds of shared identity to deny empathy and a sense of belonging to others. It gives elites and dominant groups an excuse to see social problems as distant pathologies, rather than soluble crises affecting people who are like them. And in the specific case of people living in poverty, it creates manmade barriers to the social inclusion and economic mobility of vulnerable people and communities.

So, is this a problem that needs to be fixed, and if so, how?

According to Brooks and Powell, it comes down to whether we want to empower others to be able to help themselves. But we can't expect others to see their value if we keep treating them like they're worthless.

Humanity demands that we don't just "help" the poor by giving them material accommodations, but that we help ourselves by "restoring them to a position in which they are needed—in which they are necessary, integral participants in in our economy, our communities, and our collective imagination."

There will be arguments over how to make people "necessary," but it certainly starts with the Golden Rule, which is to say that we embark on "a deliberate, conscious effort" to stop setting poor people apart as something "other" than the rest of us.